Zeynep Tufekci: Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win Feb 2015
So recently, we heard a lot about how social media helps empower protest, and that's true, but after more than a decade of studying and participating in multiple social movements, I've come to realize that the way technology empowers social movements can also paradoxically help weaken them. This is not inevitable, but overcoming it requires diving deep into what makes success possible over the long term. And the lessons apply in multiple domains.
Now, take Turkey's Gezi Park protests, July 2013, which I went back to study in the field. Twitter was key to its organizing. It was everywhere in the park -- well, along with a lot of tear gas. It wasn't all high tech. But the people in Turkey had already gotten used to the power of Twitter because of an unfortunate incident about a year before when military jets had bombed and killed 34 Kurdish smugglers near the border region, and Turkish media completely censored this news. Editors sat in their newsrooms and waited for the government to tell them what to do. One frustrated journalist could not take this anymore. He purchased his own plane ticket, and went to the village where this had occurred. And he was confronted by this scene: a line of coffins coming down a hill, relatives wailing. He later he told me how overwhelmed he felt, and didn't know what to do, so he took out his phone, like any one of us might, and snapped that picture and tweeted it out. And voila, that picture went viral and broke the censorship and forced mass media to cover it.
So when, a year later, Turkey's Gezi protests happened, it started as a protest about a park being razed, but became an anti-authoritarian protest. It wasn't surprising that media also censored it, but it got a little ridiculous at times. When things were so intense, when CNN International was broadcasting live from Istanbul, CNN Turkey instead was broadcasting a documentary on penguins. Now, I love penguin documentaries, but that wasn't the news of the day. An angry viewer put his two screens together and snapped that picture, and that one too went viral, and since then, people call Turkish media the penguin media. (Laughter)
But this time, people knew what to do. They just took out their phones and looked for actual news. Better, they knew to go to the park and take pictures and participate and share it more on social media. Digital connectivity was used for everything from food to donations. Everything was organized partially with the help of these new technologies.
And using Internet to mobilize and publicize protests actually goes back a long way. Remember the Zapatistas, the peasant uprising in the southern Chiapas region of Mexico led by the masked, pipe-smoking, charismatic Subcomandante Marcos? That was probably the first movement that got global attention thanks to the Internet. Or consider Seattle '99, when a multinational grassroots effort brought global attention to what was then an obscure organization, the World Trade Organization, by also utilizing these digital technologies to help them organize. And more recently, movement after movement has shaken country after country: the Arab uprisings from Bahrain to Tunisia to Egypt and more; indignados in Spain, Italy, Greece; the Gezi Park protests; Taiwan; Euromaidan in Ukraine; Hong Kong. And think of more recent initiatives, like the #BringBackOurGirls hashtags. Nowadays, a network of tweets can unleash a global awareness campaign. A Facebook page can become the hub of a massive mobilization. Amazing.
But think of the moments I just mentioned. The achievements they were able to have, their outcomes, are not really proportional to the size and energy they inspired. The hopes they rightfully raised are not really matched by what they were able to have as a result in the end. And this raises a question: As digital technology makes things easier for movements, why haven't successful outcomes become more likely as well? In embracing digital platforms for activism and politics, are we overlooking some of the benefits of doing things the hard way? Now, I believe so. I believe that the rule of thumb is: Easier to mobilize does not always mean easier to achieve gains.
Now, to be clear, technology does empower in multiple ways. It's very powerful. In Turkey, I watched four young college students organize a countrywide citizen journalism network called 140Journos that became the central hub for uncensored news in the country. In Egypt, I saw another four young people use digital connectivity to organize the supplies and logistics for 10 field hospitals, very large operations, during massive clashes near Tahrir Square in 2011. And I asked the founder of this effort, called Tahrir Supplies, how long it took him to go from when he had the idea to when he got started. "Five minutes," he said. Five minutes. And he had no training or background in logistics. Or think of the Occupy movement which rocked the world in 2011. It started with a single email from a magazine, Adbusters, to 90,000 subscribers in its list. About two months after that first email, there were in the United States 600 ongoing occupations and protests. Less than one month after the first physical occupation in Zuccotti Park, a global protest was held in about 82 countries, 950 cities. It was one of the largest global protests ever organized.
Now, compare that to what the Civil Rights Movement had to do in 1955 Alabama to protest the racially segregated bus system, which they wanted to boycott. They'd been preparing for many years and decided it was time to swing into action after Rosa Parks was arrested. But how do you get the word out -- tomorrow we're going to start the boycott -- when you don't have Facebook, texting, Twitter, none of that? So they had to mimeograph 52,000 leaflets by sneaking into a university duplicating room and working all night, secretly. They then used the 68 African-American organizations that criss-crossed the city to distribute those leaflets by hand. And the logistical tasks were daunting, because these were poor people. They had to get to work, boycott or no, so a massive carpool was organized, again by meeting. No texting, no Twitter, no Facebook. They had to meet almost all the time to keep this carpool going.
Today, it would be so much easier. We could create a database, available rides and what rides you need, have the database coordinate, and use texting. We wouldn't have to meet all that much. But again, consider this: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States navigated a minefield of political dangers, faced repression and overcame, won major policy concessions, navigated and innovated through risks. In contrast, three years after Occupy sparked that global conversation about inequality, the policies that fueled it are still in place. Europe was also rocked by anti-austerity protests, but the continent didn't shift its direction. In embracing these technologies, are we overlooking some of the benefits of slow and sustained? To understand this, I went back to Turkey about a year after the Gezi protests and I interviewed a range of people, from activists to politicians, from both the ruling party and the opposition party and movements. I found that the Gezi protesters were despairing. They were frustrated, and they had achieved much less than what they had hoped for. This echoed what I'd been hearing around the world from many other protesters that I'm in touch with. And I've come to realize that part of the problem is that today's protests have become a bit like climbing Mt. Everest with the help of 60 Sherpas, and the Internet is our Sherpa. What we're doing is taking the fast routes and not replacing the benefits of the slower work. Because, you see, the kind of work that went into organizing all those daunting, tedious logistical tasks did not just take care of those tasks, they also created the kind of organization that could think together collectively and make hard decisions together, create consensus and innovate, and maybe even more crucially, keep going together through differences. So when you see this March on Washington in 1963, when you look at that picture, where this is the march where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech, 1963, you don't just see a march and you don't just hear a powerful speech, you also see the painstaking, long-term work that can put on that march. And if you're in power, you realize you have to take the capacity signaled by that march, not just the march, but the capacity signaled by that march, seriously. In contrast, when you look at Occupy's global marches that were organized in two weeks, you see a lot of discontent, but you don't necessarily see teeth that can bite over the long term. And crucially, the Civil Rights Movement innovated tactically from boycotts to lunch counter sit-ins to pickets to marches to freedom rides. Today's movements scale up very quickly without the organizational base that can see them through the challenges. They feel a little like startups that got very big without knowing what to do next, and they rarely manage to shift tactically because they don't have the depth of capacity to weather such transitions.
Now, I want to be clear: The magic is not in the mimeograph. It's in that capacity to work together, think together collectively, which can only be built over time with a lot of work. To understand all this, I interviewed a top official from the ruling party in Turkey, and I ask him, "How do you do it?" They too use digital technology extensively, so that's not it. So what's the secret? Well, he told me. He said the key is he never took sugar with his tea. I said, what has that got to do with anything? Well, he said, his party starts getting ready for the next election the day after the last one, and he spends all day every day meeting with voters in their homes, in their wedding parties, circumcision ceremonies, and then he meets with his colleagues to compare notes. With that many meetings every day, with tea offered at every one of them, which he could not refuse, because that would be rude, he could not take even one cube of sugar per cup of tea, because that would be many kilos of sugar, he can't even calculate how many kilos, and at that point I realized why he was speaking so fast. We had met in the afternoon, and he was already way over-caffeinated. But his party won two major elections within a year of the Gezi protests with comfortable margins. To be sure, governments have different resources to bring to the table. It's not the same game, but the differences are instructive. And like all such stories, this is not a story just of technology. It's what technology allows us to do converging with what we want to do. Today's social movements want to operate informally. They do not want institutional leadership. They want to stay out of politics because they fear corruption and cooptation. They have a point. Modern representative democracies are being strangled in many countries by powerful interests. But operating this way makes it hard for them to sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics. And politics and democracy without an effective challenge hobbles, because the causes that have inspired the modern recent movements are crucial. Climate change is barreling towards us. Inequality is stifling human growth and potential and economies. Authoritarianism is choking many countries. We need movements to be more effective.
Now, some people have argued that the problem is today's movements are not formed of people who take as many risks as before, and that is not true. From Gezi to Tahrir to elsewhere, I've seen people put their lives and livelihoods on the line. It's also not true, as Malcolm Gladwell claimed, that today's protesters form weaker virtual ties. No, they come to these protests, just like before, with their friends, existing networks, and sometimes they do make new friends for life. I still see the friends that I made in those Zapatista-convened global protests more than a decade ago, and the bonds between strangers are not worthless. When I got tear-gassed in Gezi, people I didn't know helped me and one another instead of running away. In Tahrir, I saw people, protesters, working really hard to keep each other safe and protected. And digital awareness-raising is great, because changing minds is the bedrock of changing politics. But movements today have to move beyond participation at great scale very fast and figure out how to think together collectively, develop strong policy proposals, create consensus, figure out the political steps and relate them to leverage, because all these good intentions and bravery and sacrifice by itself are not going to be enough.
And there are many efforts. In New Zealand, a group of young people are developing a platform called Loomio for participatory decision making at scale. In Turkey, 140Journos are holding hack-a-thons so that they support communities as well as citizen journalism. In Argentina, an open-source platform called DemocracyOS is bringing participation to parliaments and political parties. These are all great, and we need more, but the answer won't just be better online decision-making, because to update democracy, we are going to need to innovate at every level, from the organizational to the political to the social. Because to succeed over the long term, sometimes you do need tea without sugar along with your Twitter. Thank you. (Applause)